Commentary

Fore! Here Comes Rory McIlroy!

I did not watch a single hole of the U.S. Open over the weekend but you'd have to have been playing astronaut Alan Shepard's favorite course to not realize that an endorsement superstar was aborning during its four days. Rory McIlroy -- a 22-year-old with a head full of curly locks and a story line that includes a dad who tended bar at a country club in Northern Ireland and a mom who worked the night shift at a Belfast factory to help him realize his dreams -- set 12 records en route to winning his first major tournament in North America yesterday.

The headline on the front page of the print edition of the New York Times proclaims: "A Fresh Young Star Easily Wins the Open, and the Fans' Affection." It helped that McIlroy was carrying a little bit of nastiness into the tournament that, in Hollywood-climax fashion, he could put behind him.

Back in April, he blew a four-stroke lead in the Master's, most notably with a triple bogey on the 10th hole, and finished tied for 15th on the tournament. That was the occasion of his only mention to date in a major ad trade, and it was not positive. Writing in Adweek, Anthony Crupi observed that a last-minute surge by Tiger Woods, albeit a losing one, had been a boon for CBS.

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"Catching and then passing the brash McIlroy must have been particularly sweet for Woods," he continued. "During the run-up to last October's Ryder Cup, McIlroy questioned Woods' abilities, saying he 'would love to face' the struggling champion in the annual challenge. The 21-year-old upstart from Northern Ireland -- as old as Woods was when he claimed his historic first win at Augusta in 1997 -- also suggested that Woods had become an 'ordinary' player since his fall from grace in 2009."

But McIlroy had the Yanks eating out of his hands by the final round yesterday, with "choruses of distinctly American sports chants - 'Here we go, Rory, here we go'" reportedly echoing across the fairways of the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Larry Dorman reports in the Times. And the "brash" young man that Crupi observed had become "every mother's son, self-effacing and unaffected ... with a smile, a shrug and an incomparable swing."

"He's the one who's been on the horizon, the guy everybody has been hoping would come along," Tom Callahan, a Golf Digest columnist and author of a book about Earl Woods, Tiger's dad, tells Dorman. "I'm ready for a sports hero who doesn't treat the world like his spittoon."

It's not that McIlroy hasn't enjoyed some success; it's just that it has been on the more measured and reserved commercial playing fields of the European tour. When Fortune Brands agreed to sell its golf business to Fila Korea for $1.23 billion in cash a month ago, Financial Times made a point of mentioning that its Titleist golf balls are used by about two-thirds of professional golfers, and that the brand sponsors European Ryder Cup player McIlroy.

And when McIlroy took third place in a tournament in the Race to Dubai tournament in the United Arab Emirates in 2009, the Belfast Telegraph observed that "the staggering amounts of money Rory is set to make mean he can well afford to pay the fine that he can expect to receive for smashing his club into an advertising hoarding yesterday as he expressed his disappointment at missing out on the top spot."

CNBC Sports Business Reporter Darren Rovell, in a story written before the victory was sealed, points out that McIlroy also has deals with Jumeirah and Oakley, yielding him about $10 million in endorsement income already. "But marketing insiders think that could easily double in a year's time if he continues his charge to the top of leaderboards and finishes off to win a major, something he couldn't do this year at the Master's."

I heard a radio interview with McIlroy after he shot a 6-under 65 in the first round of the U.S. Open in which he was very humble about his prospects over the next three days and made allusions to having dissembled in the Master's. Something along the lines of "nobody knows better than I what can happen ..."

In the end, we can write with authority that McIlroy learned from his own gaffes on the golf course. And, one hopes, he's also paid rapt attention to the how not to conduct oneself off the golf course if he hopes to cash in, long-term, on his no-doubt soaring Q Score.

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